Season’s eatings: revel in nature’s abundance at this time of year

There are so many sound reasons to eat seasonally — from the environment, sustainability and cost to finding the fullest flavours.

One particularly rewarding, less well-documented benefit to planning your meals around nature rather than a supermarket shelf is the natural variety it brings.

 

Two of life’s biggest joys are exploration and experimentation, and being presented with an ever-changing line-up of available produce necessitates both of these things — whether you’re cooking at home or planning a restaurant menu that shows off the season.

 

If you stick wholeheartedly to nature’s calendar, no fortnight’s meals will be the same as the last. And thanks to varying weather (and changing climate) neither will one year’s timeline match the previous. You really do never know what ingredients will be rubbing shoulders with each other until they’re picked and on the plate.

 

As we move into the latter part of spring and see the first signs of summer, Britain’s produce is at its most fast-paced. Each week we are seeing the arrival to market of new seasonal stars, from young veg to eager fruit and flavour-packed leaves.

 

Top of the pile at this time of year is England’s almighty asparagus, a vibrant, verdant envy of the world. In fact, it is to many the regimented rising of the first asparagus stalks above soil that signals the start of the warm season and all the fabulous feasting that goes with it. Eat the grassy young shoots as simply as you can — perhaps lightly grilled and drizzled with sea salt and a touch of oil.

It’s also the time for samphire, known as asparagus of the sea due to its fondness for rocky, seaside locations. For chefs and diners alike, its subtle salty tang is hard to beat and goes especially well with fish. At Swan, Shakespeare’s Globe, Executive Chef Allan Pickett pairs it with roast hake, cockles and cocoa beans.

Samphire also pairs extremely well with crab, its salty tang cutting through the richness of the buttery brown meat. Handily, crab is also coming into season —  it’s as if nature new what it was doing!

 

If it’s a question of the season’s most high-profile ingredient, Jersey’s famous Jersey Royal new potatoes would take the crown. They are so iconic that they have a Protected Designation of Origin thanks to their light skin and nutty, earthy characteristics. Cook them simply to let these flavours shine, and whatever you do don’t peel them. They are on the menu at Swan West Malling, simply crushed and served with roasted sea bream, confit fennel and horseradish yoghurt.

 

Wild garlic, a much sought-after leaf with a beautifully gentle garlicky flavour, is also bang in season and a true short-lived pleasure. If you’re lucky enough to be able to forage your own, then enjoy it. The rest of us will have to pay but it is worth it. At Swan, Shakespeare’s Globe, Allan Pickett uses it to make a vibrant sauce to accompany slow-cooked ox cheek, making the most of its citrusy freshness. It also goes incredibly well with lamb, a meat which has become the poster child of spring.

 

Another food with no shortage of seasonal profile is rhubarb, which is also now in full flow. Whether from its heartland around Yorkshire or elsewhere in the UK, this unique vegetable is the perfect foil to creamy rice puddings or panna cottas. And when the English weather rather reliably leaves us cold, what better way to warm up inside and out than with a classic rhubarb crumble?

The best part of the season is that all of this really is just the tip of the Iceberg lettuce. This wonderful season is a time to revel in nature’s abundance and ensure you feast on as much of it as you can, because the beauty of seasons is that just as fast as they come around, off they go again.

All the ingredients for a perfect wedding meal

People say that getting married is one of the most stressful things you will do in your life but they are wrong: getting married is the easy bit. It’s the planning that takes the real commitment.

It’s the biggest party you will ever throw, no matter what the size. Having all the people you and your partner care about — or at least have to invite — all there just for you creates a lot of pressure to get it right. When someone says ‘will you marry me?’ what they are really asking is, ‘shall we throw an event that requires months, if not years, of planning at which we have to feed, water and entertain all our family, friends and colleagues for a whole day?’. Terrifying. Only it really doesn’t have to be.

If we are completely honest how many truly brilliant wedding meals have you had? Yes, the ceremony was beautiful and a wonderful time was had by all, but in the flurry of outfit planning, speech writing and table plans, the food and drink is often brushed aside.

This is fine if you have a good, food-first venue, but otherwise can leave stomachs full, but tastebuds wanting more. If you care about what you are eating and drinking and wouldn’t dream of eating anywhere average on a date or anniversary, then your wedding meal shouldn’t be any different. Here is how to get it right.

What to eat

This is a good place to start. What do you like to eat? What is the theme of the wedding? Most importantly, when are you getting married? Just like you wouldn’t have sunflowers at a March wedding, you don’t want to be serving food out of season either. Sticking to seasonal ingredients will ensure that you get the tastiest, best value for money. Your choice of food will also affect the atmosphere of your wedding. Whether you want a relaxed and informal meal that will encourage guests to mingle or a more traditional seated affair to provide the perfect setting for your speeches, get the menu right and everything else will fall into place.

Cost

Your food and drink is the second-most important decision to make after your venue, and your investment should match this. Yes, the dress is important to you, but honestly, after the initial wow factor everyone else just wants to eat, drink and party. When thinking about budget make sure you ring fence enough to feed people well. That doesn’t mean you have to spend more than you want to, but make wise choices. If you have a large group to feed over a whole day then think about high-quality bowl food, rather than a sit down meal. It is much better to provide guests with two rounds of food if the day will be long, than to leave people starving — and drinking — until an evening meal. If you want to go for a formal dinner in the evening, then pairing with a bowl food lunch can also work. When it comes to quantity a good caterer can help you get it right, but know your guests: if you are big drinkers, then make sure you up the food to make sure the party holds out to the end of the night.

Different tastes

Weddings are great for getting people from all walks of life into the same room. Remember though, that people like different things. You and your circle of friends might love rare meat and bone marrow, but some of your older, younger or less gastronomically-minded guests might struggle with this kind of menu. If you are serving meat, make sure the caterer cooks either to order (do this in advance) or provides a choice of options on the day. Provide simple food for younger guests, not everyone’s children will eat steak tartare and their parents won’t thank you if they have to deal with hungry little people on a busy day. Although it is your wedding, you are inviting guests to celebrate with you and you want them to enjoy it. Getting a balance is important either through pre-ordered menus sent out to guests or, if this is too much of a faff, providing lots of choice on the day. If you are really struggling with some guests then it’s not a bad idea to group pickier eaters together and make sure they can keep each other company.

Dietary requirements

Whether you have a number of vegetarian or vegan guests coming, or your old Uncle Chris is only happy with a cremated bacon butty slapped between supermarket sliced bread, there will be dietary challenges when planning every wedding party. The most important thing is to make sure that you know if your guests have any allergies or requirements and let your caterer know — in plenty of time. If someone is coeliac or has a nut allergy then this will affect preparation and if someone doesn’t eat meat then a non-meat gravy alternative is required. Make sure that everyone is catered for in advance, no wedding guest wants to find themselves having to tell the staff themselves on the day that they can’t eat something. As for old Uncle Chris, you’re on your own with that one!

Drinks

A well-lubricated party is usually a happy one, but you don’t want to overdo things. If you are paying for all drinks — many people opt not to these days — then make sure people don’t get too wild too early. Invest in lower-alcohol cocktails, wine or beers that will encourage people to savour not slurp. It’s a good tactic to get staff to top up wine over a formal meal if you want to help guests to pace themselves. If you are offering a paying bar then make sure it is fully-stocked with a wide-range of options. To get the most out your drinks, it’s the same rules as with your food: seasonal and local. If you are getting married somewhere away from where you live, what spirits, beers or wine do they make nearby? Garnishes and mixers should fit in with the time of year you are celebrating in. But most importantly have some fun with what you serve, it is a party after all!

Sustainability: how to ensure your restaurant has a future


Sustainability in the food and drink industry is more important than ever. The customer may have been the catalyst for the restaurant industry’s focus on sustainable, local and environmentally-friendly ingredients, but there is, of course, a bigger picture.

Climate change and its impact on farming and the supply chain is everyone’s problem. The recent courgette crisis is just a taste of what could be to come, with hiked food prices and difficulties getting certain products to the table at all becoming a tangible threat to business.

At a time when world affairs are creating enough uncertainties and challenges for the industry, it is more important than ever that restaurants pull together and take responsibility for the produce they put on their menus.

Here are some other ways to gain some notches on the sustainability scale.

Buy British and local

This one might seem fairly obvious, but there are still restaurants out there, very good ones too, which import a lot of their ingredients from overseas. It is easy to think of this being an issue for the cheaper-end of the industry, but it is a challenge for some excellent high-end restaurants too. Some ingredients are very difficult to source from the UK, some Spanish cured meat, for example. Although there are British companies making real headway, some chefs are always going to prefer to import from Spain or Italy. It’s not the end of the world, and geographically not too far, but real efforts to offset these imports with a focus on locality elsewhere — vegetables and English wines, for example — is a good start. When it comes to meat, it really is very hard to beat high-quality British meat, which brings us to…

Meat

The arrival a few years ago of a trend towards USDA Prime beef is worrying. Aside from the major welfare and food safety issues that come from importing American meat, the USA is not exactly down the road. If the carbon footprint from transportation wasn’t enough, new research emerging over the past three years has suggested that the livestock industry itself is responsible for producing more greenhouse gases than cars, planes and ships combined. So what can we do? Firstly, buy British and chip off transportation emissions. Secondly, get creative with your cuts. Of course you want to continue to offer steaks and the like, but what about making the most of offal? Traditionally less-used offcuts are not just suitable for pies and other stews: kidneys, liver and even intestines are working their way onto London’s top menus. A little more thought can mean that you cut your menu’s meat-print down while also tackling another major problem…

Waste

We are all throwing too much food (and other things) away. The trend towards nose-to-tail eating is one way to tackle this, but there is still a way to go. It can be a challenge in a large commercial kitchen to keep on top of waste, especially if your menu is varied and you want to ensure that customers have as much choice as possible — there’s nothing worse than your first-choice dish having sold out. Or is there? A good restaurateur will tell you that the way to run a successful restaurant is to overcome challenges by turning them into strengths. You want to be fully-stocked on the dishes that make up the backbone of your menu, but why not plan to run out of select others? Keep things interesting and show off the quality of your ingredients and range of offering by having some dishes that when they are gone are replaced by something equally exciting. This means that the customer knows upfront that you are committed to keeping things fresh and seasonal and that when that dish goes they could be first to try the next. Variety is the spice of life — and key to managing your food waste too.

Vegetables

Speaking of seasonal, and we all should be by now, vegetables are absolutely key to keeping your menu planet and margin friendly. Veggie dishes are no longer just the stomping ground of vegetarians, many customers are turning to veggie dishes as a legitimate meat or fish alternative. Whether it is because they too are conscious of the environmental impact, looking to roots for health reasons or just enjoying how creative chefs have become with plants, nowadays people like veg. This is great news for the environment and means lower food costs for restaurants. The days of the stuffed mushroom are over: long live the veg!

Choice

As a restaurant it is difficult to commit to simply ‘being sustainable’. As important as it is, there is still a need to ensure that customers don’t feel pushed out by any price increases. After all, post-Brexit people are — for the time being, at least — feeling financially cautious. Outside of the tips listed above, none of which should increase costs, the key is choice. For most high-end restaurants, offering free-range and organic meat is standard, but for a smaller, more price conscious or newer restaurant this can be daunting. By putting free-range chicken on the menu alongside other options you are allowing the customer to choose whether they go for it or not, and also showing off the quality and sustainability of your menu. Buying organic meats and dairy — or direct from the farmers’ market — supports local farmers who are the only real antidote we have to unsustainable, mass-farming. They are also infinitely higher animal welfare, which will attract people to spend more money too. The days of ‘vegetarian’, ‘vegan’ and the likes are numbered, today people talk of being ‘ethical eaters’ or ‘flexitarians’. By shouting about your organic dairy, line-caught fish and organic, locally-sourced meat you are investing in your reputation, the planet and your business. May they both have a long and happy future.

Start of the English Summer Wine

English wine has been popping up in bars and wine-focussed restaurants for a while now, but in the last couple of years it has crept into the mainstream. Now found in bars and restaurants at all levels, pubs and even supermarkets, it is not just those in the know about wine that appreciate some of the excellent examples of English grapes.

During the Brexit debate English fizz found itself part of the Leave campaign’s arsenal, with some politicians claiming that our British wine could give French Champagne growers a run for their money. While this may not be the case in economic terms due to limits of scale and production, in terms of the quality of our homegrown fizz, the Eurosceptics were (perhaps accidentally) telling a truth.

English wine producers are one of the clear winners of the Brexit vote. At a time when mainstream customers are finding their feet with English wine and coming to terms with paying Champagne prices for brands dinner guests may not be familiar with — perhaps with the exception of Nyetimber, which is fast becoming a household name — bubbles from across the Channel are about to become pricer.

As the sterling remains low, Champagne — and at the better value end Prosecco, too — are more expensive to import meaning that English wine is becoming a better-value alternative for buyers both at home and abroad.

There has even been talk of a collective name for English wines, in the way that wines from Champagne are called, well Champagne, and Spanish fizz is known as Cava. Albion has been put forward by some in the wine industry, but we are yet to see if it will catch on.

There are some top-quality ‘Albions’ or sparkling wines coming out of vineyards such as Nyetimber, Chapel Down and Three Choirs. Here are some of our favourites.

Nyetimber, West Sussex

Sussex’s Nyetimber is top of the English wine pops. Vines were planted in 1988 and it was the first English sparkling wine producer to make wine exclusively from the three classic Champagne varieties: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier. Twenty years later, and the result is England’s classic and best-known premium sparkling wine. Made from only its own grapes, it is creamy with classic brioche notes finished off with a citrus twist. Champagne who?

Chapel Down, Kent

Kent-based Chapel Down not only makes some excellent fizz, but some fantastic still whites too, like its 2014 Bacchus Reserve in all its tropical, freshly-cut-grass loveliness. The vineyard is open to the public, which is exciting too. There is talk of a post-Brexit boom in British vineyard visits, with some commentators predicting the arrival of high-end hotels and restaurants along a Napa Valley-style wine trail, following the launch of an English wine trail map last year. Chapel Down even dabbles in less-established red and orange skin-contact wines too; he who dares…

Three Choirs, Gloucestershire


Planted in 1973, Three Choirs is one of the most long-established vineyards in the country. It is also one of the largest and most innovative, regularly experimenting with new grape varieties: it grows an impressive twelve different grapes. Three choirs is also open to the public, putting this Gloucestershire wine destination firmly on the English wine map. For a 100 percent Bacchus you can’t go wrong with the elegance of the 2013 harvest. Dry, aromatic and herbaceous on the palate with gentle oak ageing. It’s not only fizz that the English wine world does well.

Westwell, Kent


This Kent-based vineyard is exciting for those with an eye on the more-affordable fizz market. Its award-winning Pelegrim Brut NV caught the eyes of judges last year and is one of the few English sparkling wines not commanding Champagne prices. Produced not far from where Taittinger has put down vines, in the chalky slopes of the North Downs, Westwell Pelegrim takes its name from Pilgrim’s Way in Kent. The blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay (along with reserve wines from previous vintages) is bottle fermented, rather than tank, giving it a extra-dry non-vintage biscuity style. Prosecco watch out.

This really is just the beginning. There are lot’s of things to be excited about in English wine post-Brexit, with the higher-end set to become a more affordable option for export, while there are rumblings of similar successes at the all-important cheaper end.

Irrelevant of politics and votes, 2017 is looking like being a stellar year for English sparkling. Or should that be Albion? It’s actually starting to have a bit of a ring to it…

Brexit means Brexit, but can London’s restaurants make a success of it?

Brexit means Brexit, but can London’s restaurants make a success of it?

Since the UK voted to leave the European Union last June the restaurant industry has been living in the shadow of a looming Brexit. While the terms of the divorce remain unclear and timings are at best hazy, the industry waits to see exactly what the impact might be.

This week Jason Atherton made headlines urging government to set out its plan soon, instead of leaving us all waiting ‘like plonkers’ and earlier this year Jamie Oliver announced the closure of six of his Italian restaurants blaming the rise in import costs.

The industry is feeling shaky but it’s not all doom and gloom. With challenge comes opportunity, or at least an excuse to get creative.

Local produce

Restaurants have already been focussing on locality and provenance for the past few years. Customers care about where the food on their plates comes from, and exotic, long-haul ingredients have been phased out and replaced with the best seasonal, British-grown fare.

A focus on locally-sourced products is not only better for taste, producers and the environment, it will also go some way towards ‘Brexit-proofing’ a restaurant over the next few years. Restaurants relying too much on European ingredients will bear the brunt of the fall in sterling as the cost of imports from countries such as Spain and Italy rises.

British classics

While the drop in the pound has hit imports, it has given London’s tourism a boost.
Our capital is well known for being a pricey city, especially if you are coming from a less-expensive part of the world — which is pretty much anywhere apart from Switzerland, Scandinavia and Japan!

The weaker pound makes it cheaper and therefore more appealing, and recently the city has seen record numbers flocking to make the most of its new-found affordability. This is creating an enlarged market for restaurateurs, especially if they can give tourists what they want: the best of British.

Exciting takes on classic British dishes, using aforementioned local ingredients, will attract discerning foodie tourists and it is a great excuse to resurrect some more traditional dishes that have fallen out of fashion in favour of influences from France, Italy and Spain. After all, if tourists wanted to eat pasta they would probably go to Rome.

Creative vegetables

While the tourist market is growing, it is important to continue to attract regulars and locals too — this will always be a restaurant’s bread and butter.

Despite Brexit fear, the number of people eating out in London is still increasing, however the amount they are spending each time is decreasing slightly.

Restaurants need to acknowledge this by finding ways to keep the cost of their dishes down, so they can offer affordable menus without eating into their profit margin.

Using more veg and keeping expensive meat and fish to a minimum is one way of achieving this. And foodies love it: cauliflower is way more fashionable than chicken at the moment.

Where meat is used, cheaper cuts cooked long-and-slow, pre-cured or smoked can be far more effective than a great slab of prime fillet.

Wines and Spirits

The English wine industry often popped up in the referendum debates as it is one of few that could actually benefit from Brexit, in the short-term at least (link to wine blog post).

But there are lots of other British craft ales and spirits that could also stand to gain. The last few years have seen craft distillers pop up all over London and beyond, the capital is now producing exciting gin, vodka and whisky of excellent quality — by stocking back bars and wine lists with UK-made products restaurants can skip the import hike and support local businesses and economies.

Sustainability

Restaurants and bars are always looking for ways to be more sustainable. What we eat and drink has a huge impact on the world we live in, and in light of other Trump-shaped world events, the environment is likely to become an even hotter topic as the year goes on.

On a simple level, flying stuff in from all over the world creates a big carbon footprint, so opting for local is not only kind to the profit margins but it is eco-friendly too! In the wake of Brexit, changes to how we import (and export) food are going to be on the negotiating table.

With the threat of US food products (which are currently banned as they fail to meet EU food safety rules) entering into the British market, now is the time for restaurants to show their commitment to supporting local British producers and safeguarding the quality of what they serve. They will not only be doing good, people will notice.

British talent

Imports and currencies aside, the restaurant industry’s biggest concern when it comes to Brexit is about staff.

Currently the vast majority of staff in London restaurants — both in the kitchen and front-of-house — are from Europe. Few are British.

This is in part because the UK has never had the strong food culture of many European countries, such as France, Spain and Italy, but that is changing.

A shortage of workers from overseas will be scary in the short-term, but it will also push the industry to invest time and resources in encouraging young Brits to take up food industry roles and to help train them.

In the long-term this will mean we can create a new generation of homegrown British restaurateurs, chefs, maitre d’s and food industry leaders. The restaurants which get in on the act early will be the biggest winners.

Why Do We Eat Turkey?

Swan restaurant - Shakespeare's Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, London SE1 9DT

Swan restaurant – Shakespeare’s Globe, 21 New Globe Walk, London SE1 9DT

Christmas dinner for most of us is turkey with all the trimmings: stuffing, roast potatoes, sprouts, parsnips, gravy, sausages — the more you can get on that plate the better.

While we have come to think of what we eat and drink at Christmas as British, the traditions we follow have clocked up a fair few historical miles.

Over the years our festive food has adopted ingredients and dishes from all over the world, be it cranberry sauce from the States or mulled wine from Germany.

Turkey itself only became popular after Henry VIII decided to eat it for Christmas following the import of some of the big birds from America.

Around the world different seasonal foods and cultural traditions mean that Christmas eating can look very different.

If you are looking for some inspiration for an alternative Christmas menu, or just fancy cooking something different over the holiday, here are some of the festive foods that people will be enjoying around the world this year

Norway

The Norwegians go all out and eat Christmas food for every meal, not just lunch! pinnekjøtt, best translated as fermented mutton ribs, are popular and a lot nicer that they sound. Pork ribs are also widely eaten, with eggs and gravlax thrown in for breakfast. It might sound a million miles away from a roast, but smoked salmon and eggs doesn’t sound too far away from a British brunch menu!

Sweden

Swedes celebrate Christmas with a seasonal Smörgåsbord made up of ham, pork, sausage, egg, gubbröra (an egg and anchovy salad) and of course lashings of pickled herring and rye bread or vörtbröd. Sweden also has a favourite fermented, bony fish dish called lutefisk, something that probably won’t be finding its way onto our Christmas menu anytime soon.

Spain

The people of Spain love tapas, indeed who doesn’t, and Christmas is no exception. Think starters of gambas a la plancha (grilled prawns) and champinones al ajillo, which are mushrooms dripping in olive, garlic and Spanish sherry — maybe one for Grandma? Mains mean meat and in Spain suckling pig or cochinillo asado is roasted for the festive season, it makes an excellent alternative to the British turkey roast. If you live in Spain and want a taste of home over the festive season, why not give The Carvery Company a try?

Kenya

In Kenya Christmas means gathering the family and neighbours together for a big Nyama Choma (barbecue) with roasted meats including goat, beef or sometimes chicken trimmed with chunky flakes of salt and chapati flatbread. Markets in the capital, Nairobi, are packed to the brim with locals buying and selling chickens, pigs and goats in preparation — frozen meat isn’t too popular, Kenyans like their meat fresh and locally-produced. There are a few things which are a bit more familiar, too — a version of Christmas cake is also popular.

Japan

The Japanese Christmas tradition also involves poultry, but these birds are fried not roast. Christmas cake is the traditional festive food, although it is not a rich, boozy fruitcake, but a sponge topped with strawberries and whipped cream. The only dates at this time of year are ones spent in a restaurant with your lover — the most popular thing to do on Christmas eve is a festive dinner date. So no sprouts here then and probably the less said about the trend for Christmas KFC the better.

India

India also likes its cake (and we are much more likely to eat it). Plum cake is made from fruit and nuts which are soaked for almost a month before. In the run up to Christmas fried snacks are prepared, but for those with a savoury seasonal tooth then the meals are the star of the show. Mutton or chicken curry for breakfast with other snacks, and a lunch made of meaty biryani dishes followed bright and elaborate desserts are traditional. Curry for breakfast has been known to tempt the odd soul in the UK, perhaps a festive tradition that might catch on?

Mexico

Noche Buena or Christmas Eve is the big foodie event in Mexico. Salad is on the menu, but not as we know it. Ensalada de Noche Buena (that’s simply Christmas Eve salad) is fresh, zingy and contains orange, pineapple, beetroot, pecans, pomegranate. Cornmeal dumplings called tamales are a more filling Christmas treat and are prepared by wrapping the dumplings in corn husks and steaming them. They are so time consuming to make that families do them in big batches at special parties called tamaladas. Sounds a bit like the opposite of pass the parcel!

If you are looking for ideas to jazz up the turkey this year? Mexican families often serve it with mole, a rich sauce made of ground chillies and spices.

Well there you have it. All around the world people sit down at the same time of year to celebrate with their own very different seasonal meal. If you’re bored of your usual, there’s no shortage of inspiration for alternative Christmas food ideas, but in honesty you just can’t beat a Great British roast. Merry Christmas.

Season’s Eatings

christmas-341
Deck your plates with the best produce that’s in season over Christmas

Where fresh, seasonal British produce is concerned there’s no such thing as a bleak midwinter.

December might seem less bountiful than the warmer months when berries fill bushes and tomatoes are ripe for the picking, but that is exactly its charm.

It is a time to discover the beauty of simple veg and make the most of its creativity-inducing versatility, to think outside the box when it comes to flavour combinations, and to celebrate the cosy comfort food recipes that our ingredients are perfect for.

There is no excuse for flying produce over from the other side of the world, and quite frankly would you want tomatoes with your turkey at Christmas?

Putting down roots

Root veg is the mainstay of a British winter and it would be wrong to overlook the possibilities of a humble parsnip or carrot. Our ancestors certainly didn’t — how do you think we ended up with carrot cake?

But while some root veg is available all year round, other less common roots need to be savoured while you can. Nutty Jerusalem artichokes — delicious eaten raw in salads or roasted as well as in soups and sauces — are a short-lived annual treat, while salsify, with a subtle
taste similar to oysters, is worth tracking down at a farmers’ market or on a restaurant menu.

Horseradish is another root which is in its element around Christmas time. When freshly grated, the fiery, mustardy vegetable is a world away from the jars of supermarket sauce.

The greens party

The brassica family, which includes cabbage and kale, is in its absolute element at this time of year, boasting deep green leaves packed with flavour. The Savoy cabbage, lightly cooked in a little butter, is a particular highlight — its bold, rounded leaves are every bit as impressive and majestic as the classic London hotel of the same name.

Then there’s a veg which is as synonymous with Christmas as a mince pie, though more divisive. 2016 may have been dominated by our relationship with Brussels, but as a nation we’ve always had a bit of a love/hate thing going on when it comes to sprouts.

Rather than boiling them to death like your mum does (sorry, mum) try roasting them until they go slightly crisp around the edges or stir-fry them with a little chilli or Five Spice. Seasonal doesn’t have to mean same-old.

Meat of the matter

Turkeys were only introduced to the UK from America around 500 years ago but they quickly became associated with Christmas and now many people would dream of eating nothing else on the big day. While much of this is to do with fashion, seasonality is also key. Birds born in
the spring will just have reached a ripe age and plump size by the time December comes around — perfect for us, perhaps less so for them.

Game birds are also in their prime at this time. Goose, partridge and pheasant are often served as alternatives to turkey, and are rich gutsy meats for winter days. Venison is also bang in season, ideal for wellingtons or pastry-topped pies.

Go nuts

What else would you roast on an open fire at this time of year but a chestnut or two? Well, you could give hazelnuts and walnuts a go too as they’re also in season right now. Use any of these nuts to add texture to your cooking: toss a few in with your greens, crumble them into a root vegetable mash, or add them to stuffing.

They can be used in pudding too, add chopped hazelnuts into the mix for the top of a late season apple crumble for added crunch and flavour. Seriously, go nuts — they’re a good addition to just about any dish.

The finer things

There’s no shortage of luxury at this time of year, either. If you happen to have a clever pig with a good sense of smell to hand, or are looking to splash out at the deli, then there is no better time to indulge in truffles — try them sliced into mash for a luxuriously posh potato dish. Oysters are at their best at this time of year, too.

Overseas additions

Finally, rules are always made to be broken and there is some room for food from further afield — but only in moderation. Across the Atlantic cranberries are at their plumptious best across America and Canada, while closer to home Spain is producing sensational satsumas and
clementines. Conveniently, both of these go rather well with our native produce: cranberry and turkey is as classic as it comes, and clementine zest will bring new found life to our winter veg. Just make sure you remember which is the star of the show.

Tips From the Top: Diccon Wright Shares his Restaurant Industry Insight

swan_restaurant-21-v2

After more than 25 years of running restaurants across the UK and Mediterranean, Christopher Diccon Wright is nothing short of a specialist in his field.

His restaurant businesses include Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe in London’s Bankside and Swan in West Malling in Kent. He also runs an events business and oversees all the catering outlets at the Globe theatre.

As anyone in the industry knows, running successful restaurant is no easy task, and takes a lot of hard graft. A little insight can go a long way, though. With that in mind, Diccon Wright shares his experience and tips for making it in the restaurant business.

When did you first decide to open a restaurant?
It was in 1994. I was working in another career I thought that I should be doing, rather than something I would love doing. I had always had a passion for food and drink so when the opportunity to get involved with a restaurant landed on my plate I thought: why not, let’s have a go. I was only 32 and it was just a 30-seater restaurant so I thought it would be a bit like having a big dinner partner. I was wrong.

What did you learn from this first venture into the restaurant business?
I have never worked so hard in my life and earned so little money! It was seriously hard work running a 30-seater restaurant, you had to do it all – from getting in early to press the linen to locking up at night. I had never done a day’s work in a restaurant at all until then, so it was a bit of a shock to the system. I had a couple of very talented cooks and we cracked on with it for a few years and made a success out of it and had quite a lot of fun with it too in the end. There was a lot of passion for the end product which kept us going and I learnt a huge amount.

As a restaurateur what drives you?
These days I employ something like 300 people across a few restaurants, so I am mainly focused on delivering the site, the architecture and the look and feel of what we are going to do – and for nurturing these people. As a company we aim to develop people and I try hard to provide the sort of encouraging environment that would have been helpful for me back in 1994.

What do you see as your main challenges?
People are the main challenge. In this business it’s all about attracting, training, developing and retaining the best people for the job. This includes chefs and the kitchen team and front-of-house as well as a rock-solid financial team and plenty of business acumen.

So, how do you inspire and keep your employees?
I want the best talent coming into my business at a senior level. I am currently working with a number of highly talented business partners at each restaurant: Jess Harris and Michael Clark at the Globe, Daryl Healy and Nick Leventis at Swan West Malling and Karen and Mark Cornwall at the Carvery out in Spain. They have the space and authority to run the businesses as they see fit, and in return I ensure the rewards and opportunities are there to keep them interested. In so many businesses I see owners trying to employ senior teams as cheaply as possible, but I believe that to get real traction, you need to share the goodies and ensure that everyone is a real stakeholder.

At lower levels, staff need to be able to see room for progression and to keep learning. It is also important that they are excited by the product.

What is the single most important factor in creating a successful restaurant?
I think you need to have complete clarity of what you are trying to deliver. The most important thing is always the customer, and it is essential to understand what the customer expectations are and to focus on delivering them. Obviously good food and good service are prerequisites, they are your entry point into the market.

How important is the financial side of a business versus the food and experience?
I always start from the premise that you should concentrate on the food and customer experience and the money will follow. However, you do need the right people with the right experience and a business model that is workable. I have seen some brilliant restaurants which are critically acclaimed, but you know they won’t be there in five years. Get a copy of the Michelin guide from five years ago and see if they are all still going – that is quite sobering.

There is a lot of talk about how formal a restaurant should be. What do you think?
I like our restaurants to be professional and attentive but relaxed. We don’t want a stiff environment, we like people to enjoy themselves and have fun and to think of our restaurants as a home from home, but better. If people want two-star Michelin service with foams and dots on plates then they won’t get it with us!

Any other tips?
You have got to be in it to create a sustainable business, it is not something to play with because restaurants are a mechanism to lose vast amounts of money if you get it wrong. Don’t do what I did: don’t treat it like a dinner party for 30!

Are you a keen chef outside of work?
I love cooking at home. I cook really simple dishes using very good ingredients. There’s an excellent fishmonger near where I live in Greenwich and I love cooking lots of fish. Simple food done well.

Finally, what’s your favourite restaurant?
What the guys are doing down at Lyle’s in Shoreditch is very special and Kitty Fisher’s in Mayfair is very good. I also like 40 Maltby Street where they do excellent wines and nearby José on Bermondsey Street does excellent tapas.

We have a restaurant called The Carvery Company in Spain and close by is the local fish market that does just stripped-down simple fish after the main sale in the morning, and it is absolutely wonderful.

Secrets Of A Successful Stand-Out Menu

Diccon Wright is a restaurateur and property specialist based in the UK and Spain. He runs his own portfolio of restaurants, and is the consultant brains behind many others. Here he gives his top tips on the dos and don’ts of the perfect restaurant menu.

The menu is the cover your restaurant will be judged on; it’s also the only thing that diners have to look at while they wait for their first drink. Despite this is it often an afterthought. Some decent gastropubs and restaurants offering good-quality, well-cooked food knock pounds off the value of their dishes with a scruffy or ill-curated menu. Food is only worth what people are willing to pay for it and a menu’s job is to build tension, anticipation and atmosphere around the table.

rsz_swan_restaurant-66

A menu’s aesthetics should be an extension of the restaurant’s story: how did it evolve, what does it do best and who does it want to attract? It is common sense that photographs on a menu scream more low-end pub or diner than trendy nose-to-tail eatery, but heavy leather-bound almanac-style menus can be a turn off too. Think about the physical space of the site, if you are a counter-style or small plates restaurant then a simple, high-quality paper list is probably the way to go. Equally, if you are eco-driven then don’t betray your values with a non-recycled menu because your audience will notice straight away. In my experience there is never an excuse to laminate unless you cater for an underwater clientele!

People like choice, or they at least like to feel like they have options. Too few items on a menu and people will begin their experience feeling limited; this is especially true of vegetarian diners or those with allergies or other dietary requirements. Conversely, too much choice can confuse diners – the role of a menu is to guide the customer through what dishes are on offer so they can choose something that they will really enjoy. Good-hearted tussling over who will have what and whether the rest of their dinner guests are willing to share for fear of ‘food envy’ and you know you have it spot on. If one person panics and ordering something they probably won’t really enjoy, then the dynamic is spoilt. Eating out is a group affair; one person’s unhappy meal will bring the whole experience crashing down.

Avoid adjectives which tell people that things are ‘delicious’ etc. – nobody likes to be told what to think, and it’s subjective anyway. Long-winded descriptions are outdated and fussy, while trends towards simple, locally-sourced ingredients done well have resulted in a fashion for listing dishes simply by ingredients separated by commas. This is simple and fashionable, but be wary of it when catering for a diverse audience as it can be a little vague. In most cases restaurants want to aim for somewhere in between the two. A menu should include the information a restaurant is proud of: if you are lucky enough to be able to serve Ginger Pig meat then why wouldn’t you scream and shout about it.

We have all heard the joke about ordering the ‘second cheapest’ wine, well the same is true of food. This can be especially true of couples on dates who might be trying to be polite (or not anticipating a second round!). Mix up menu items and encourage eyes to take in the whole selection; most people decide what they are going to order in the first few glances. Positioning more expensive items in prime places is something to consider – certainly don’t hide away your house specialities – but avoid flashy boxes and overly showy presentation as nobody wants to feel pushed into ordering outside of their price comfort zone. Make the higher-priced exciting stuff a desirable treat to indulge in, but let them make up their own minds.

Sides are a great way to up table spend, but should be created because they genuinely enhance the main event. Positioning sides together and including interesting vegetables alongside the staples of chips or potatoes will encourage multiple side orders. Some restaurants make bizarre mistakes like listing sides with starters or under a main including a ‘+chips for £4’. This is unnecessary: people know if they want sides or not and if they don’t need them then do tell them so. What they save on a superfluous side they will likely spend on a pudding or digestif anyway.

Specials can be something of a minefield. Not least because of recent legislation requiring the listing of allergens on menus. The communication of them is also tricky, many times I have misheard the specials and discounted the lot rather than dare make the whole table listen to the waiter repeat it again. Equally, getting up to read a blackboard on the other side of the room can be inconvenient, at its worst resulting in a person standing over other diners attempting to photograph the menu on their phone. A simple rule is this: if you are going to do specials then they should be just that. They should feel genuine – our butcher/fishmonger/forager was able to get hold of this and we couldn’t resist. That means one or two items that are genuinely interesting told by a well-informed waiter with enthusiasm and clarity.

A successful menu will evolve over time. Collecting data and communicating with waiting staff on the front line will give you the clearest indication of what is popular and what needs more work or freshening up. Customers expect a menu to change and the most authentic way to do this is through seasonal ingredients, whilst keeping hold of favourite and signature dishes. Experiment with pricing, serving a more expensive cut of meat for two is often a more affordable way for customers to try something out they might often feel unable or unwilling to afford.

And finally, staff tastings are an absolute must as these are the people that you rely on to guide customers through your restaurant experience. More and more I hear customers asking waiting staff: what’s your favourite dish. Quite right too.

Food Trends in the UK

1swan_-_food__drinks_33
Diccon Wright is a restaurateur and property specialist based in the UK and Spain. He runs his own portfolio of restaurants, and is the consultant brains behind many others. Here he gives his round-up of current and future trends in the UK food scene.

The UK is a very exciting place to be right now when it comes to food. The variety of cuisines, the creativity in the kitchen, and the quality of what’s being served, is all quite astounding. How it’s being served is also of a very high standard – everything from the service to the interior design. I believe the food scene here is only going to get more vibrant, propelled by some key dining trends.

Provenance of ingredients
People want to know where the food you are serving them has come from. They want to know how it was was farmed, whether vegetables were sprayed with pesticides, and if animals led a good life before ending up on their dinner plate.

roast beef from the joint at the carvery

Today’s diner feels responsible for the increasingly dire state of the world’s environment and wants to make a difference by making good food choices. Patrons at my restaurants check before ordering that the fish is sustainably harvested, that the meat we serve is ethically farmed and locally sourced, and that the vegetables and grains are organic. Natural wines, too, are a becoming much more sought-after.

Woe to the restaurant that neglects this shift in thinking as it is only going to get more pervasive.

Local produce
Restaurateurs are focusing more and more on sourcing ingredients from local producers. Staying local supports the community, reduces the carbon footprint of transporting ingredients from afar, and gives chefs better control of what comes into their kitchens as they can visit the farms and work closely with the farmers. Many restaurants are now growing their own produce.

Looking further into the future, as climate change creates unstable weather patterns, and farming technology develops, it’s likely that farms will be even more local and small-scale. Fruit and vegetables will be grown in hydroponic tunnels, protected from the elements. This might mean we lose our sense of seasonality.

Healthy eating
Along with being aware of how our food impacts the planet, diners are increasingly knowledgeable about how what they eat affects their bodies. How meat is reared (use of antibiotics and other chemical supplements) and crops are grown (pesticides on the food) are two obvious concerns, but eating for health is surely going to go much further.

Combining the present trend of “free of” eating – lactose, gluten, sugar, and so on – with advances in genetic technology, the future will likely see more people eating for personal health.

Vegetables and grain become star ingredients
The shift to a more ethical way of eating will make vegetables and grains playing a starring role in the kitchen. We’ve already seen this shift, in which the obligatory one or two, rather dull, vegetarian options on a menu have become a few really inspired and exciting dishes. I see vegetarian and vegan dishes becoming much more popular and prevalent.

Regional food
In London we have restaurants serving food from almost everywhere in the world. This interest in regional foods is only going to expand, both into lesser-known cuisines, such as Filipino and Iranian, as well as into a deeper knowledge of more well-known food, such as Indian. No longer will a restaurant serve ‘an Indian curry’ –now you’ll a Goan vindaloo or a Bombay Parsi sali boti.

More fusion
Globalisation and the deeper knowledge of regional foods will also lead to more experimentation with ingredients from afar in the kitchen. The current playful fusing of Brazilian and Japanese cuisine, and Korean and Italian cooking styles, for example, will continue, with new cuisine combinations. Spices, herbs and other ingredients will make their way into cuisines that have never used them before.

Back to British
Concurrent to the focus on international cuisines, there will be a return to British cuisine. Interest in our own regional food traditions combined with a nostalgia for the tastes of childhood will see diners flocking for high quality renditions of British classics. The Sunday roast with Yorkshire puddings and gravy, hearty pies and summer puddings (all with organic, sustainably sourced ingredients, of course) will give us a sense of our own place in this very globalised world.

strawberry pavlova at the carvery

UK diners today have dining choices that span the globe as well as our own very verdant and creative backyard. How these major trends all develop, overlap and intersect will make the dining scene here ever more interesting.

Next Posts

About Diccon Wright

Christopher Diccon Wright is a restaurateur and property specialist who has established and grown successful operations in the UK and Mediterranean. He has also worked on a consultancy and advisory basis for a wide range of food and property clients.